The muggers are very dangerous

One topic in the textbook this week is crime, and one grammar point is the passive voice, which allows us to say things like ‘The man was heard having an argument with the victim, seen leaving the scene of the crime, reported to the police, investigated, questioned, arrested, charged, tried, found guilty, condemned to death, hanged, drawn and quartered, and buried in unconsecrated ground’. Who by? By witnesses, the police, the crown prosecutor, the jury, the judge, the Lord High Executioner and four horses, and someone. Crime is an ideal context in which to practice the passive voice as it typically has an active participant (a do-er), a transitive verb and a passive participant (a done-to).

Much nonsense has been written about the passive voice (among other things, many people who write negatively about it a) can’t actually identify it, and b) use it quite naturally in the course of writing negatively about it), but it is a full part of English (and many other languages), is often used and often very useful. (It is, of course, sometimes (?often) badly used.) (Without consciously trying, I used four actives (underlined) and three passives (bolded). This way more passive than the overall average of about 15%.)

A special use of the passive voice allows us to change (1) into (2) and (3):

(1) The police say that the muggers are very dangerous.
(2) It is said (by the police) that the muggers are very dangerous.
(3) The muggers are said (by the police) to be very dangerous.

The grammar practice page in textbook included (1), and the students had to write (2) and (3). One student, in a moment of inattention, wrote (4), but fortunately not (5):

(4) It is sad that the muggers are very dangerous.
(5) The muggers are sad to be very dangerous.

Transforming ‘A killed B’ into ‘B was killed by A’ is relatively straightforward (allowing for so many forms of verb be and so many irregular past participles). But what is the transformation which allows us to produce (2) and (3) from (1)? The passive equivalent of (1) is:

(1a) ?That the muggers are very dangerous is said by the police.

The active equivalent to (2) is:

(2a) *The police say it that the muggers are very dangerous.

and the active equivalent to (3) is:

(3a) *The police say the muggers to be very dangerous.

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, in A Student’s Guide to English Grammar, don’t cover this, and I don’t have a spare couple of hundred dollars to buy The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, so my cheap option is Wikipedia, where the article on English passive voice contains a section on Passive constructions without an exactly corresponding active. It starts (non-grammar geeks can skip this block quotation):

Some passive constructions are not derived exactly from a corresponding active construction in the ways described above. This is particularly the case with sentences containing content clauses (usually that-clauses). Given a sentence in which the role of direct object is played by such a clause, for example:
* They say (that) he cheats.
it is possible to convert this to a passive by promoting the content clause to subject; in this case, however, the clause typically does not change its position in the sentence, and an expletive it takes the normal subject position:
* It is said that he cheats. [It doesn’t indicate that *that* can be omitted, but I think it can: ‘It is said he cheats’. It is certainly clearer with *that*.]
Another way of forming passives in such cases involves promoting the subject of the content clause to the subject of the main clause, and converting the content clause into a non-finite clause with the to-infinitive. This infinitive is marked for grammatical aspect to correspond to the aspect (or past tense) expressed in the content clause. For example:
* He is said to cheat.

(2) and (4) seem to have the same grammatical structure, but they don’t. (4) is an example of extraposition.

(4a) That the muggers are very dangerous is sad.

is actually more syntactically basic, but (4) is much more common.

(5) The muggers are sad to be very dangerous.

is an example of adjective complementation. Huddleston and Pullum, in A Student’s Introduction, compare ‘eager to win’ (where ‘to’ is the marker of a to-infinitival, followed by a verb, analogous to ‘sad to be‘ in (5)) with ‘kind to children’ (where ‘to’ is a preposition, followed by a noun).

Another student wrote:

(2c) It is said by the police that muggers are very dangerous.

Which is a different idea. (2c) states that all muggers are very dangerous. (2b) states that a relevant group of muggers are (?is) dangerous.

And of course I started the lesson with this:


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